Did you make some New Year's resolutions this year? Many of us vow to eat more healthily, spend less and exercise more – at least for a few weeks! So if you're thinking of signing up with your local gym to improve your fitness, make sure you check the contract before you join.
Until fairly recently, gyms were notorious for having contracts that even the most supple of gymnasts would struggle to wriggle out of.
But a clampdown by the Office of Fair Trading has made contracts more user-friendly. However, you can still be caught out if you don't know what to look for.
Check that you will get a seven-day cooling-off period (and make sure this is in writing or in the contract). If there isn't one, don't sign up unless you are 100% happy with your decision.
Most privately-run gyms cost a minimum of £30 a month, and you could pay over £80 a month if you want to be able to use all the gyms in the network. If you change your mind within the seven days, you can cancel the contract without paying any fees, as long as you haven't used the gym.
Gym contracts shouldn't be for more than 12 months or, if they are, you should be able to cancel the contract after the first 12 months with 30 days' notice. Most gyms offer rolling monthly contracts as an alternative (although they usually cost more).
If you sign up to a 12-month contract, you can generally cancel in the first year only if your circumstances change (loss of job, ill health etc), or if, for example, the gym increases its prices significantly.
Cancelling your contract
You will usually have to give 30 days' notice if you want to cancel your contract, whether it is for annual membership or on a rolling monthly basis.
But if you don't cancel your annual contract at the right time, you may find you pay an extra month's membership, as some gyms will cancel your membership from the first day of the month only after they get your cancellation notice.
You should always cancel a contract in writing (unless the gym asks you to cancel by a different method) and send the letter by recorded delivery.
If you're asked to cancel in person or over the phone, send an email or letter to confirm.
Change of circumstances
If you lose your job, move house, are ill, become pregnant or suffer severe financial hardship, you should be able to cancel a 12-month contract early. But check what you have to do.
For example, you will usually have to provide a doctor's note if you are ill or evidence that you have moved house, and most gyms will simply transfer your membership if one of their branches is within ten miles of your new home.
Closure of facilities
If the gym no longer offers the facilities you signed up for, there is no guarantee you will be able to cancel your membership. So if you are thinking of joining a gym because it does early-morning classes, for example, or because it has a crèche, it is worth asking if you can cancel your membership if these facilities are no longer offered (and get confirmation in writing).
I have looked at a couple of contracts that say the gym doesn't have to provide the services at a particular time and that you would be able to get out of your contract only if the gym you've signed up for closed for more than 30 days at a time for repairs or refurbishment.
Do you need to join a gym?
Of course, you may not need to join a private gym at all. Start by seeing what your local council offers. You may not get a gleaming reception area or fluffy towels, but it could be more budget-friendly. Otherwise, there are pay-as-you-go options such as PureGym, open 24/7, where you can buy a day pass or pay per month, or PayasUgym, which has about 1,500 gyms in its network, where you can buy day, bundled or monthly passes.
Think carefully before signing up for a 12-month gym contract as many people stop going to the gym after a few months. Make sure you know when you can cancel, and check out non-contract alternatives.